The identification of recent case of George Floyd with a class lecture on African American History by one of my students attracted my attention to reevaluate the aspect of police brutality as a tool of oppression and its expression of its effects in the lives of the oppressed people in the works of many African American intellectuals.
African American bodies were always treated like objects of brutality of every genre even medical as expressed in the book by Harriet Washington entitled Medical Apartheid (2007). Adding to this sexual exploitation and toils of slavery were present from the very day the first ship full of slaves embarked on its voyage from a coast of the African continent to touch another coast across the Atlantic ocean, where their dark complexioned bodies would be sold at a high price, to eventually turn slave trading into a hundred percent profitable trade.
Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Cudjo’s Cave (1864) though showcase a sense of mercy by the ‘Whites’ towards their ‘colored’ counterparts yet depict a grotesque picture of violence practiced by the ‘White’ masters upon their slaves. Both these works have characters of runaway slaves. In numerous autobiographies by the runaway slaves like, A Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and so on we get a first hand record and sometimes experience of these brutalities over the bodies of the slaves.
After the abolition of slavery in the era of Ku Klux Klan, lynching and mobbing of African Americans became a common practice in the name of protecting the body of the white woman from the African American male. History has seen many examples of police brutality becoming a part of this practice. Many African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance have questioned and have criticized this brutal practice over the body of the African Americans.
Playwright like Georgia Douglass Johnson protested lynching and mobbing of the African Americans in her plays. One of her famous one act plays is Blue Eyed Black Boy (c.1930). Racist society along with biased police and judiciary system against an innocent ‘Black’ boy occupies the centre state of this play. In this short one act play the playwright has put the power hierarchy on the basis of complexion, present in her contemporary United States of America, under scrutiny. The end of the play takes the audience to a realization that the birth of the Blue eyed Black boy was also a result of an exploit and his death would also have been the result of a similar brutality.
Jack, the absent protagonist of the play Blue Eyed Black Boy reminds us of various colored victims of police brutality like George Floyd in Minneapolis, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and many more. Such cases also got dramatic and fictitious depictions in various political and court room dramas like Scandal, The Good Wife and so on.
While talking about the victim we ignore the family members who are indirectly and sometimes even directly get affected by such brutalities. In this play Georgia Douglass Johnson has tried to depict the pain suffering and anxiety of the family members of these victims. While looking into the collective aspect of the impact of police brutalities we land up at the conclusion that racial oppression and sexual oppression are not different from each other they get triggered from each other.
Modern feminist scholars tend to identify feminism as a collective movement. In other words it is a movement against injustice of every kind and in support of every victim of any oppression, irrespective of the sex, creed, color, ethnicity or nationality. Modern African American collective feminist movements have kept such collective racial issues at their focal point.
In the year 1970 one such communist feminist Dr. Angela Davis was arrested on account of her association with the protest movement against the wrongful imprisonment of three African American youngsters in Soledad prison of California. These three young men were together referred to as Soledad Brothers. It is interesting to note that the then President of the United States of America Mr. Nixon congratulated the FBI immediately after the arrest of Dr. Davis saying:
“…capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.”
History then witnessed a huge movement almost all over the world demanding freedom of Dr. Davis.
This picture seemed to have remained unchanged even after almost 50 years of Dr. Davis’s arrest. President Trump’s statement regarding the protest movements across the United States of America against the police brutality towards the African Americans gives us a similar picture as he said:
“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again…,”
These collective movements never remain limited to family and friends but involve the whole community. Sometimes such movements even gather supporters of social justice from every part of the world. The works of various African American writers give us an insight within the complex framework of racial oppression and Black feminist theories. Thus encouraging the study of the intertwined issues of race, gender and class as represented in works of African American authors during different time periods. Interestingly incidents of lynching, mobbing and police brutality remained at the centre of these works. It would not be wrong to consider Anti-lynching plays as an early way to give expression to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Anti-lynching plays are the forms of protest theatres which foregrounds the struggle against the white male dominant order of the American society. It would be interesting to note that in the first half of twentieth century both White and Black playwrights were documenting anti-lynching plays. Anti-lynching plays are important references to the public movements protesting the brutality practiced on the Black bodies. Many of these plays highlight the role of both Black and White women in such protests, sowing the seeds of defining feminism as a collective movement.
A painful past is always difficult to reconnect with. But as the well known African American author Toni Morrison has always emphasized on the fact that it is extremely important to stand face to face with the history irrespective of its unpleasantness, otherwise it haunts us. These anti-lynching plays may serve as the historical documentation of the struggle of a community for social justice. Through their works they have developed a collective movement which is still going on.
Current protests all over America can looked upon as an extension of the same protest movements that took place in the past. A literary piece can be banned, people can get killed but ideas and concepts hardly die. These movements have proved that ideas and concepts related to social justice never remain limited to pen and paper. The protests on the streets are the practical reflections of people’s understanding of their history and their identity. It is now setting new dimensions to the race relations in the country.
The apologetic gesture of various government and non government organizations across the nation can actually be read as the joining of voices in favor of social justice around the world. The dialogue between the two races which was always a matter of emphasis of all the social reformers from the very beginning, is probably going to commence very soon. Are we witnessing an important juncture of history? The answer is resting deep in the womb of time.
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